The Ansco Memos

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The Ansco Memos
By Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr.


It was the standardization of motion picture film at Thomas Edison's choice of a width of 35 mm. - that led to the introduction and ultimate proliferation of 35 mm still cameras. While the earliest of these made use of leftover lengths of cine film, from the movie industry, eventually the production of film for these still cameras became an end in itself. While the film used in the early cameras was standard - 35 mm Wide, either perforated or un perforated - the 35mm cameras that appeared in the nineteen teens and twenties were far from standard. It wasn't until the 1930s that they began to conform to many of the features introduced with the late comer Leica camera. Prior to that time, cameras used perforated, un perforated or even paper-backed film; non-standardized film cartridges/magazines; employed various negative formats and assumed a variety of shapes - some with vertical and others with horizontal orientation.

To many, one of the most appealing of the pre-standardization cameras using 35mm film was the little - 2x2-1/2x4 inches - Ansco Memo. While the camera was vertically oriented, it used the horizontal, "half-frame" (18x24 mm) format of 35mm motion picture cameras. The camera, as originally introduced in December 1926, had a varnished all-wood body, with lacquered brass fittings (Fig. 1).

Original Ansco Memo |more|
Atop the camera was a black, tubular optical viewfinder and a metal carrying handle. The camera was equipped with an f/6.3 Ilex Ansco, Cinemat Lens, mounted in an Ilex shutter that provided speeds of T, B, 1/100, 1150 and 1/25 sec. The camera's exterior was designed (U.S. Design Patent 74,211, filed for January 22, 1927 and granted January 10, 1928) by Carl Bornmann, a veteran Ansco employee and designer. The internal mechanism was desgined by a team headed by L.W. Lessler.

At the time of the Memo's introduction, there was no such thing as a standard film load, much less a standard film cartridge. The Memo used a two-cartridge system (Fig. 2).

Method of loading feed
and take up cartridges. |more|
The upper cartridge held a 50-exposure length of perforated "cine" film that was fed into the lower cartridge by means of a claw mechanism, activated by a lever on the camera's back panel (Fig. 3).

Film-advance lever. |more|
The film counter, on the front above the lens and shutter, was activated by the shutter release but not coupled to the camera's film advance. So it was possible either intentional or unintentionally - more often the latter - to make a double exposure. The original film cartridges were rectangular and made of wood, with metal end caps. Over the years, the cartridges evolved to all-metal construction and, ultimately, rounding on one end.

At some point, probably in March or April 1927, a second version of the Memo replaced the first (Fig. 4).

Second version of
the Ansco Memo. |more|
Its only differences were that it sported a leather covering on the all-wood body and had nickel plating on the metal fittings. Also, in June 1927, Ansco announced "Advanced Models of the Memo Cameras". These featured either a fixed focus Bausch & Lomb f/6.3 Anastigmat lens or focusing models with f/3.5 or f/6.3 Bausch & Lomb Anastigmat lenses.

The Memo cameras came with soft, suede leather carrying cases - though hard leather cases later became available at extra cost. The camera's shutter-release lever had a knurled knob on its end, to facilitate grasping it with a finger. This probably led to the knob's catching on the case's interior as the camera was withdrawn, resulting in a number of unwanted exposures of the case's interior. It certainly led to the introduction of the third version of the Memo, one with a metal guard plate behind the shutter release lever (Fig. 5).

Third version of
the Ansco Memo. |more|
This plate precluded the accidental release of the shutter. This change, at least in advertising illustrations, occurred between December 1927 and January 1928.

In 1928, between April and May, a change in the company's name occurred. Ansco Photoproducts, Inc. became the Agfa Ansco Corporation. Some time after that merger/acquisition a fourth version, the Official Boy Scout Memo, was produced (Fig.6).

Boy Scout Memo,
with hard case. |more|
This camera returned to the non-Leather-covered body but it was painted olive greed. In addition to the camera's nameplate bearing the Boy Scout logo, there was also a blue Boy Scout logo embossed on the camera's olive green hard-leather carrying case. Purportedly, Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girls Memos were also made but this writer knows of none.

From the mid- 1930s on, 3 5mm camera users could purchase enlargers and other accessories that would accommodate the standard full-frame (24x36mm) or half-frame (I 8x24mm) negative formats. Prior to 1930, however, nothing was really standardized. In general, the most successful 35mm cameras were those that had an accompanying "system" of enlarger, printer, projector and even - in some cases - copy stands/cameras. The Memo was no exception to this practice. At the time of the Memo's introduction, it was possible to contact print strips of film onto more film, thus making positive film strips.

Memo Film
Enlarging Printer. |more|
These could then be projected by means of the Brayco Still-Film Projector, for which Ansco was the Distributor. A second option was making enlargements - of course on Ansco's Noko paper - with the Memo Film Enlarging Printer (Fig. 7).


By February 1927, a machine for contact printing Memo negative strips onto 35mm film was available.

Memo Film Positive Printer. |more|
Whether or not this was the "new Memo Film Positive Printer", mentioned in June 1927 (Fig. 8), is uncertain. That printer was a fairly large piece of equipment. Also available in June 1927 was the Memo Copier (Fig. 9), "for copying photos, drawings, etc.", for use with the Menlo camera.

Memo Copier. |more|
The Memo Still Film Copying Camera (Fig. 10) came with two camera-sized bodies, in addition to the type of base and copy board/easel found in the Memo Copier. The front of the copy camera's standard was fitted with an f/3.5 Wollensak Velostigmat lense.

Memo Still Film
Copying Camera. |more|
The f/3.5 aperture was used for focusing but f/6.3 was recommended for exposures. At the back of the standard were two Memo-sized bodies. One was hollow, except for a ground-glass screen used for focusing. Attached beside it was, in essence, a Memo body, with shutter, release lever and film-advance lever. After focusing with the ground-lass body mounted behind the lens, the pair of bodies was slid laterally, to bring the exposure-making section into position.

As was said before, the Memo system included projectors. Ansco initially offered those from other manufacturers -first the Brayco and, by June 1927, the B. & L. Film Projector No. 4090. By December 1927, the Pordell Flashlight Projector was being offered with the Memo (Fig. 11).

Second version of Memo,
with Pordell Flashlight Projector. |more|
It was essentially a flashlight body mounted on a wooden base and equipped at the front with a simple mechanism, with lens, for accommodating the filmstrip. In February 1928 Ansco introduced the Memoscope (Fig. 12), a much more substantial filmstrip projector.

Memoscope Projector. |more|
It was designed and patented (applied for March 1928, issued May 1931) by Carl Bornmann. The projector, which also came in a Boy Scout version, could also be used with the Memo Enlarging Outfit, a base and copy board/easel that could be used in the darkroom. The equipment could "also be used for projection of positive rolls in restricted space, - for example, where it is desired to check rolls, lay out lectures, etc.".

So what did the various Memos and their "system" accessories cost? Here's a list of some prices:

December 1926 (when introduced)

  • Memo camera, with soft suede case $20.00
  • Memo film, 50-exposure cartridge 0.50
  • Brayco Projector 27.50
  • Memo Film Enlarging Printer 75.00
June 1927
  • Memo camera, f/6.3 lens 20.00
  • Memo camera, f/6.3 B. & L. lens 25.00
  • Memo camera, f/6.3 B. & L. focusing lens 30.00
  • Memo camera, f/3.5 B. & L. focusing lens 40.00
  • Black, sole leather belt case 3.00
  • B. & L. Film Projector No. 4090 57.50
  • Carrying case for projector 7.50
  • Ansco Positive Film Printer 30.00
  • Memo Copier 15.00
December 1927
  • Memo camera with Pordell Projector 23.75
January 1928
  • Memo Enlarging Printer 50.00
  • Memo camera, f/6.3 Wollensak focusing lens 25.00
  • Memo camera, f/3.5 Wollensak focusing lens 35.00
  • Memoscope Projector, with case 19.50
Ca. 1930
  • Memoscope Enlarging Outfit (not including Memoscope) 20.00
  • Memo Printing Frame, 50 frame/exposure lengths 4.00
  • Memo Printing Frame, 8 frame/exposure lengths 1.25
  • Memo Copier 15.00
  • Universal Still Film Copying Camera 50.00

Of course a relevant question in all of this is, how affordable were the Memos and accessories back then? Could the average person afford them? U.S. Department of Labor statistics tell us that in 1928 the average annual earnings of full-time employees, after deductions for unemployment, were $1,297. That's $24.94 a week. Think about it. Another figure for 1927, the average weekly earnings of "production and nonsupervisory workers on private nonagricultural payrolls", gives a figure for those in the manufacturing industry of $24.47 per week. Just how affordable were the Memo, etc for the "common man"? And it all went down hill from October 1929 on.

Exactly when the demise of the Ansco Memo came about is uncertain. The Great Depression certainly contributed to it. In the manufacturing industry, weekly earnings of those lucky enough to still have jobs - fell by 31%, to $16.89 by 1932. By around that time, Willoughby's, a camera store in New York City, was selling Memos at closeout prices. Subsequently, the Memo name was revived at least three times. The Agfa Memo, a 35mm folding model introduced in March 1939, used the by-then standard full-frame format. A half-frame version was introduced the next year.

Ansco Memo II Automatic,
and Ansco Memo Disk HR 10. |more|
The Ansco Memo II Automatic (Fig. 13), made by Ricoh in 1967 for Ansco, the successor to Agfa Ansco, produced negatives in the half-frame format. It had a spring-wound rapid film advance. And, in the 1980s, the Ansco Memo Disc HR 10 (Fig. 13) was produced briefly in Hong Kong for Ansco.

References: The Ansco Dealer, various issues, 1926-1927 Ansco Catalogs and Pamphlets, 1928-1929 The Ansco Memo Camera, March 1927 The Ansco Memo Camera, April 1929 Memo Finishing at Home, c. 1930 The Universal Still Film Copying Camera, c. 1930 Photo-Era Magazine, various advertisements, 1927-1930 National Geographic, various advertisements, 1927-1928 American Photography, various advertisements, 1927 Cameras of the 1930s, 1977 A Century of Cameras, 1982

© Copyright 2002, Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr.

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